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Our Digital Future and the End of Used Gaming

Whether you like it or not, the video game industry is going digital.

Some of us have embraced this trend, but for others, it is a terrifying prospect, one that heralds the impending doom of gaming. The fact that games will one day no longer be available in a physical format means there will be no more used games. Prices will be fixed to whatever the publishers see fit to charge us. In short, the "big, bad" game companies will then control everything, and there will be nothing we can do about it.

I'll resist the urge to insert a theatrically maniacal laugh here.

But these harbingers of the industry's demise are not wholly unfounded, either. There will come a time, be it ten years from now or thirty, when games housed on a physical disc will be a thing of the past. And yes, this means there will be no more used games. And yes, the developers and publishers will have complete control over what we will pay for their games.

I'm not here to deny that these changes will happen, because I fully believe they will. I'm here to tell you why, in my opinion, these changes will make video games better for us all.

But for starters, there is another matter I feel needs to be addressed, of a related yet much more pervasive nature. Whenever we hear the terms "developers," "publishers," or "industry," many of us imagine towering offices, bigwigs in expensive suits, multi-million-dollar business deals, or other such spectacles of corporate greed. The development and publishing sector of the industry is little more than an abstract concept to most of us, and it feels like it's a world away from the average gamer. "They" are only interested in the bottom line; "we" just want to be able to play our games without getting screwed in the bargain. There's a tremendous disconnect between us and them, and so it's all too easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking in terms of "us" and "them."

But the fact is, developers and publishers are only one half of the entity we know as the video game industry. We don't usually think of it in such terms, but if we're looking at the industry as an economic system, there is an entire segment of it apart from the game companies. I'm talking about us. The gamers. The consumers. And the basic economic truth of the matter is that we coexist with developers and publishers in a dynamic, symbiotic relationship—in other words, neither side would be able to survive without the other. The reality underlying this symbiosis is far more complicated than simply "us" versus "them."

What exactly does this mean? Well, the most pertinent implication is that developers and publishers will never have all of the power in this relationship. They need us as much as we need them, if not more. Sure, they get to decide which games to make and what those games will look like. They get to decide when we will get games and exactly how much we will pay for them. It's easy to feel like they have all of the power in this relationship. But that's only because we—the gamers, the consumers—exert our power in much more subtle ways.

Through our collective choice of which games to buy, and thus which games, trends, and companies to support, we have the power to dictate the direction in which the industry moves. What's more, we have been exerting this power since the beginning. "They" cater to our whims, to our ideas about what makes a game great. When they fail to satisfy our expectations, we punish them for it. We pan the game, and withhold our support. They, meanwhile, go back to the drawing board and try to do better by us next time. But the subtle influence of our power as consumers reaches farther than simply determining which games (and by extension, game companies) succeed and which fail.

Why am I taking the time to expound upon all of this? Because it's important to realize that the video game industry is not shifting into digital territory solely because "they" wish it so, or because "they" want more power over us. On the contrary, the biggest reason why the industry is shifting into digital territory is because—economically speaking—we are telling it to.

We want bigger and better games. We want more variety in our game choices. And we want all of this as soon as possible, with as little hassle on our part as they can manage. It is because of these demands on the part of us, the consumer, that the costs involved in game development are continually skyrocketing. For now, the price we pay for a new game is largely fixed. But the developers and publishers have to have some way to counter these rising development costs.

Thus, these businesses (like any strong businesses) are constantly seeking ways in which to become more efficient, to streamline their processes as much as possible. The shift into the digital realm is streamlining the video game industry like nothing that has come before. But—and this is the important part—this increased efficiency works to our advantage as well, providing services and conveniences undreamt-of in decades past.

Our relationship with developers and publishers is changing. Personally, I believe that these changes are for the better. But in order to get to what will be a better place for all of us, we will have to learn to accept the consequences of the digital transformation just as we accept its benefits.

Perhaps the most controversial consequence of the shift into a fully digital realm is the oft-lamented demise of the used game. Just so that we're clear on the matter, in my opinion it's really not a question of if this will happen, but when. Sales of downloadable games and content are climbing, even in today's lukewarm economic climate. Eventually, the percentage of online sales will reach a tipping point: a point at which the developer and/or publisher will decide that the advantages of switching to digital-only releases outweigh the consequences of pulling the plug on physical, disc-based releases. This point, undoubtedly, will be different for each company, and will be reached at different times, under different circumstances. But at some point in the future, companies will cease production of physical video games altogether—or at least close enough to spell the end for the robust used-game market as we know it—and at that point we, the consumer, will have no choice but to buy new.

Game companies have many different motivations for wanting to switch to an all-digital format. I will not deny that the majority of these motivations are financial ones. Cutting out production of physical discs saves not only production costs, but packaging costs, shipping costs, and warehousing costs. Even more significantly, the eradication of the used-game market means no more loss of potential new-game sales. Currently, game companies see no profits whatsoever from used game sales; the digital transformation will finally be able to close that gap.

At this point, some of you are likely thinking: screw their profits, what about me? Why should I give up the affordability of used games just to help their bottom line? My response to this is twofold.

First, why would you not want to support the developers who make our games possible in the first place? Right now, your buying used games benefits exactly one company: the retailer. Not a single penny of used game sales gets back to the developer, who did all the work creating the game and is probably hard at work creating their next game. I would argue, in fact, that as responsible consumers, we should not only want to support the developers—it is our economic responsibility to do so. As I mentioned before, we are in a symbiotic relationship with them; right now, they're the ones getting screwed on this front.

Second, despite what you might think, we are not entitled to the availability of used games. Our being able to buy used games on the cheap is a privilege, not a right. Similarly, the ability to resell a used game, or trade it in, or lend it out, is also a privilege, tied to the existence of a physical copy. Nowhere is it set in stone that this physical copy needs to exist, and soon enough, it won't.

Some might refer to the EU's recent ruling proclaiming the legality of reselling digital licenses as a counterpoint to my argument here. I have reason to believe that this ruling will not hold up in the long run: in a nutshell, it is not only unenforceable, it's actually counter-productive to achieving a fair and sustainable pricing model, not to mention a potentially dangerous oversight in regards to piracy. I understand that many gamers applaud the basic premise of the ruling, but this topic could easily fill its own blog, so I'll not delve into it any further here. Regardless of your opinion on the matter, though, it doesn't change the fact that someday physical copies of games will be phased out, so I will continue under the assumption that the used market (at least as the influential market force we know it as today) will be phased out as well.

Giving up used games will be a huge sacrifice, and a hard pill for many gamers to swallow. Almost all of us buy a game used from time to time; some of us buy all of our games used. We take for granted that when we want to get a game, we typically have a choice: we can pay full price for a new game, or we can wait and pay somewhat less for a used copy. The "used" option is ingrained in us, and this is why the concept of not having that option anymore feels so foreign, so unacceptable. But the transition might, in truth, be easier than you think.

It has been widely argued that the existence of used games actually works against a fairer pricing model, by driving the cost of new games higher. It's a trade-off; if the developers and publishers are going to lose revenue to the used-game market, they need a way to recoup that loss. Such an argument posits that if the used market were gone, developers and publishers would be able to charge less for new games.

Whether you agree with this argument or not, it is clear that the sole advantage to buying a game used is price. Game companies know this. They also know that phasing out the used-game market risks alienating multitudes of gamers who currently rely on that market. This is why there is going to have to be another trade-off. If we're being asked to give up something in this relationship (the availability of used games), then they're going to have to give us something in return.

Thing is, they're already working on it. You know all of these new practices that have been so controversial among gamers over the past months and years? Incentivizing new-game sales with bonus content and online passes; the advent of the free-to-play model; the proliferation of DLC, both of the paid and free varieties; and the growing popularity of episodic content—what all of these practices have in common is that they are all part of a shift toward more dynamic pricing in the industry. This shift is by no means perfect, and is happening in fits and starts. Some of these attempts will probably fail, or run their course, or evolve into something else.

We can argue until we're blue in the face about whether or not these individual practices are viable or ethical. But my point is not about the individual means, it's about the end goal. Developers and publishers are continually striving to find ways by which they will be able to retain customers when the digital transformation is complete, and the used-game market is gone. The specific means by which they achieve this will change, and likely end up being distinctly different from anything we're familiar with today. I can tell you one thing for certain, though: whatever this new dynamic model eventually ends up looking like, it will be mutually beneficial.

How can I be so sure of this? Well, to put it simply, there is no other option.

In the face of all these recent changes, it has become rather popular to imagine a dystopian future for the industry, in which the big, bad game companies have at last seized control, and rule over and oppress the proletariat of helpless gamer masses. The specific reasons why this won't happen are numerous, but in general terms, our economic relationship just doesn't work that way.

Why? Because, subtle as our influence may seem, we—the gamers, the consumers—have just as much economic power in this relationship as they do. We, the lowly gamers, destroy game companies on a regular basis when they fail to meet our expectations. The significance of this cannot be overstated, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the rise and fall of game companies is, to a great extent, a result of our collective power as consumers. Why should we doubt that we have the power to shape the future of dynamic pricing models, when we've been shaping the direction, scope, and look of the entire video game industry since its inception?

New-game incentives, online passes, free-to-play, DLC, episodic content—all of these are merely attempts by game companies to cater to us. We have all the power to decide what we like and what we don't, what ultimately works and what doesn't. As I said, some of these experiments will probably fail. The developers and publishers, in turn, will go back to the drawing board, and try to find some other way to cater to us. We, the consumers, will not be satisfied until they hit upon a model that is mutually beneficial. This is why they will never be able to shove a practice down our throats which we collectively object to.

The digital revolution is bringing the two halves of our symbiotic entity closer together than ever before. Thanks to advances in feedback systems, developers and publishers have a clearer idea of what we want now then they ever have; thanks to broad-reaching, escalating transparency throughout the industry courtesy of the internet, developers and publishers have more incentive then ever to live up to our expectations. These changes are already happening, and as we push further and further into the digital realm, the loop of feedback and development will only grow tighter and stronger.

Video games will be better, because the people creating them will have a continually clearer picture of what we want, how best to cater to our whims and our desires. Does this mean we'll see the demise of originality or variety in games? Absolutely not. After all, even we ourselves don't always know exactly what we want, or even what we like.

As we shift into the digital realm, it is important to remember that we are not alone on our journey—we are part of an increasingly symbiotic relationship, and our other half is along for the ride. Some of you, no doubt, consider such a view to be naïve. I understand that some of you are frustrated, and disagree with some of the industry's practices. But that does not mean that developers and publishers are your enemies. They are people, just like you and me, trying to make this relationship work. Furthermore, game companies exist to give us what we want. If we have disagreements with them, fine. Believe me, they'll know. And if our collective will is strong enough, they will change. They will do everything in their power to appease us, because they have no other choice.

The thing that's so challenging, and so polarizing, about these issues is that they tap into fundamental values—values such as cooperation, self-preservation, fairness, and the fellowship of humanity. These values are powerful influences on our perspectives and our opinions, and we will not always agree about them. To those who disagree with my assessment, I have but one suggestion: if you cannot trust the game companies, then at least trust in the self-regulatory power of our free market. Trust in your own power as a willful consumer base. We'll get to the other side of this monumental transformation, and we'll get there together.

Change is not easy. Gamers will continue to cry foul over practices they don't agree with, and to lament the loss of the physical format. We've all grown up with physical media, lived our entire lives in the company of cartridges and discs. They are all we've ever known, but sooner or later they will be gone, and we will have to learn to exist without them. For many of us, it will be a hard transition. For some of us, it already is. But I for one firmly believe that we're going to a better place.

Here's to the future.

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